28 Feb 69
Well, received all my mail yesterday; and it took me about an hour to read it. I received the magazine, the package, and letters running from Feb 8th to, I think, the 21st. Plus, I finally received another "Quincy Sun" and my March Playboy.
I took that roll of film today. There's pictures of me, and the guy with the short reddish hair is Dick Reed from Boxford, Iowa; and the other guy is Don Coller from Wisconsin. He's my squad leader. Then there is a picture of our "house" and one of a 106 millimeter recoilless rifle. I thought Tommy might like that. Then I got one of LZ Dagger to show you how the Marines clear an area of land for choppers. Then there is one looking towards home where I want to be.
The booze was great. Send some more. When I go to Hawaii, I think all I'll drink is daiquiri (I can't spell it) and whiskey sours.
I wrote Steve today. I hope I hear from him. Plus I just wrote Ma & Grampa a little letter. I'm gonna send the film home today but in a different envelope.
A little about what's going on here... Mike Company on Hill 508 hasn't been getting hit as heavy but still gets a few mortars everyday. Lima Company, which is part of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, is surrounded by a battalion of VC. Kilo company has moved towards Lima company but about an hour ago got hit so hard that they had to pull back. Actually, they retreated; but in the Marines, they don't like using that word. So, I don't know what's going to happen now. But I really don't care because I'm not down there. In another 25 days, they can do all the fighting they want.
Well, got to go for now; but at least in 25 days I'll be able to call home. I can't wait.
Well, bye for now.
Sometimes, when I hadn't gotten my mail for a period of time, it would take almost an hour to read and reread my mail. Like I have said earlier, my father wrote me a letter every day that I was in Vietnam. I would also get letters from my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, and my sister Cheryl. Also there would be the Quincy Sun and Playboy.
Fortunately for us on Hill 1081, there was all sorts of time to read our mail, write letters, take pictures, and watch the war going on beneath us or coming to us via the radios in the radio shack. For those below us, the NVA were beginning to outnumber the Marines.
8 Mar 69
Western Union TeleGram
SY WAO22 CB XV GOVT PDB=
WASHINGTON DC 8 1020P EST=
MR AND MRS CORNELIUS OCONNELL, DONT DLR BTWN 10PM AND 6AM LOCAL TIME DONT PHONE CHECK DLY CHGS ABOVE 75CTS=
353 FRANKLIN ST QUINCY MASS=
REPORT OF MINOR INJURY: THIS IS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE FIRST CLASS PAUL E O'CONNELL USMC WAS INJURED 3 MARCH 1969 IN QUANG NAM PROVINCE, REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. HE SUSTAINED A SUPERFICIAL FRAGMENTATION WOUND TO THE LEFT FLANK FROM A HOSTILE EXPLOSIVE DEVICE WHILE ON AN OPERATION. HE WAS TREATED IN THE FIELD AND RETURNED TO DUTY. HIS CONDITION AND PROGNOSIS WERE EXCELLENT. IT IS HOPED THAT HE WILL COMMUNICATE WITH YOU SOON INFORMING YOU OF HIS WELFARE. HIS MAILING ADDRESS REMAINS THE SAME=
WILLIAM J VAN RYZIN USMC LTGEN ACTING COMMANDANT OF THE USMC=
On Sunday morning, March 9, 1969, this telegram was delivered to my parents' home. They would receive this before they received a letter from me telling them in my own words what had happened. My mother has told me the story about how, on this Sunday morning, she was alone. My father was at work at the fire station when the doorbell rang, and she was handed a yellow envelope. She was so scared she couldn't open the mail by herself, so she called my father who came right home. The two of them have never told me what went through their minds when they read the telegram.
Because of the delay in my letters getting from Vietnam back to home, what my parents didn't know was that by March 9th, I was back in An Hoa safe and sound; but, again, they didn't know. It was this "not knowing" that was the killer...
(Author's NOTE: These responses will be getting longer, when the actual letters were getting shorter; but I am getting into the area where I was writing less and less while more and more was going on around me.)
5 Mar 69
Well things in Vietnam are hell. I might as well tell ya the news now. Two nights ago, at about 6:00 a.m., two gooks started towards our position. Me and Reed from Iowa forced the first one back down the mountain; but, by the time the second one went back down, he had thrown a chicom, and I just got a small piece of shrapnel in my left side. Lucky it went in and out. But there's no worry, as I didn't even have to be medevaced. The corpsman put in a few stitches and put me on light duty. I at least got a purple heart for it. But I don't want you to worry because it ain't a bad wound. I'll still be in Hawaii from the 25-31 of March.
Actually, I'm pretty lucky being on Hill 1081, as two days ago Mike Company moved off of Hill 508 to Hill 315; and, so far, they have lost 5 people plus a scout dog and have 10 wounded that can't get out because the gooks have guns firing every time a medevac chopper tries to come in. One of the dead was a Lieutenant who had been in country 3 weeks. So, as you can see, Tet is really bad over here.
Well, got to go for now but will write later. Please don't worry about me because I'm actually lucky not being with the main body of Mike Company.
Call Sharon for me, and tell her the news, and tell her I'm still in fine condition. I hope I'm doing the right thing by telling you I got hit; but I guess if you found out by other sources, you'd be worried and mad.
Well, got to sign off for now.
PS 20 days before I talk to you all again.
One never knew how he would react to getting hit until it happened. I thought I might be a John Wayne but found out different.
This is a longer story than what the letter makes it seem like. The NVA actually attacked us first on Hill 1081 on the early hours of March 2nd. Two sappers scaled the side of Hill 1081 and threw a few satchel charges into a couple of bunkers on the other end of the perimeter from where my fighting position was. The initial explosions woke those of us up on the hill.
The explosions were quickly followed by M16 fire and more explosions. Most of us, who were away from the immediate action, were lost for what was happening. We listened to the radio to find out what was going on; and, after some time, heard that there were, in fact, enemy troops inside our perimeter and for everyone to stay in their fighting holes and shoot anything that moved. We also heard, over the radio, that a Marine had been wounded and that we had confirmed enemy killed.
We stayed in our fighting holes with our eyes wide open with fear until daybreak. We then began to move about the hilltop, being very careful because it was thought that the enemy had infiltrated our lines. I remember after patrolling the hilltop and finding no sign of the enemy there, we went over to where the action had taken place. Just outside the entrance to one of the bunkers, two Vietnamese males were lying dead.
One was much larger in size than the other, which had some Marines saying that maybe the large one was Chinese. The two of them had been shot up something fierce. I then saw the Marine who had been wounded. He was from Las Vegas, I remember. He had his shirt off and was showing everyone his back peppered with shrapnel. I remember he said it stung when he first got hit but didn't feel too bad now.
The dead bodies were checked for papers and identification, but none were found. All they had on were black shorts and rubber sandals. They had no weapons other than a small bamboo basket of chicoms. We were astonished at the sight of their clothing or lack of clothing and the fact they carried no rifles. We began to sense that the two of them had been on some sort of suicide mission.
After some time passed, we dragged the dead bodies to a small clearing. One of the corpsman asked for permission to do a sort of autopsy on one of the dead. He said he wanted to go to medical school when he got out of the service and that this autopsy thing would give him a taste of what it might be like to be a surgeon. I remember standing over them actually dying of curiosity while watching the corpsman open the stomach area with a scalpel as he began to explain the anatomy coming into view.
And then the corpsman stopped at a point when he came to something that he said was cancer and said, "There you have it. This gook was going to die anyway. See that. That's cancer."
I've never forgotten those words or this scene.
Next, dead tree limbs and trunks were piled in the clearing and the bodies dragged up on to the pile. Then diesel fuel was spread over the wood and bodies, and a fire was started. It took all day to cremate the bodies. I remember several times during the day, going down to where the fire was burning and watching the fire. At times, we had to throw more wood on the fire. It took some time before the bodies disappeared from sight.
The stench of the burning bodies, after the diesel fuel burnt off, was at times so powerful that we thought we might have to leave the hilltop; but we toughed it out by breathing through our shirts, held against our noses. When the fire burnt out near the end of the day, all that was left were the pelvic bones of the two enemy soldiers.
It was the next morning, March 3rd, that I got wounded. We were still jumpy from the morning before. It was just before light, when I was on watch. Someone opened fire down the perimeter from my fighting hole. Everyone scrambled to their holes. The radio came to life. The word was being passed that there had been movement inside the perimeter and that sappers possibly were among us.
I remember illumination being fired up over our heads so we could see, but all that did was invade us with moving shadows all about that appeared to be the enemy. I opened fire at what, even to this day, I don't know -- whether it was an enemy soldier or a shadow.
I worked myself into a frenzy, getting up out of the hole to charge towards what I had been firing at. At the same time, a hand held pop-up flare was fired from our fighting hole; but, before it ignited, it hit the trees overhead and was knocked back to the ground. With all this going on, my squad leader was yelling at me to stop. Then, all at once, the pop-up flare ignited; and I saw sparks coming near me. I heard the crack of what I thought was M16 fire, heard an explosion, and then felt something like a sharp knife slash my left side, followed by what felt like someone holding a lit cigar up against my side.
I yelled out, "Ma! Ma!"
I knew now I had been hit and thought for sure I was going die. People were yelling at me to get down, but all that ran trough my mind was to run for my mother; and so I ran for the next best thing -- I ran for the corpsman.
I was close to being hysterical when I got to him. In the dark, he got out a flashlight and looked at my side. He said it wasn't bad, just a graze. And I said, "I'm not going to die?"
And with that, as calm as ever, I returned to my fighting hole with the other guys; but inside me, I knew I was no John Wayne, for John Wayne never yelled out "Ma!" and ran for his mother.
Even to this day, I don't know if there were ever any enemy soldiers on Hill 1081 the morning I was wounded. None were found on this morning like they had been the morning before. I don't know what wounded me, whether it was the pop-up flare or maybe there was actually an exploding chicom or maybe I was even shot by my own guys. I don't know; but I still carry a visible scar of this wound to my side and proudly claim a purple heart, even if I'm not John Wayne (but, I still wish I had never yelled out to my mother).
As for Hill 315 and Mike Company... Things were bad. Men had been killed, but we didn't know who yet; we didn't know the names. It would be another day before we would find out that those of us up on Hill 1081 would be all that was left of our original squad. Again, being sent to Hill 1081, being separated from the rest of the company, had saved us from dying in Vietnam with the rest...
10 Mar 69
Well, I guess it was a real surprise for you to get a call from me. Actually, the reason I called was to make sure you got my letter about sending the money. It's really great that you can make a telephone call to the other side of the world. I was in An Hoa when I called. The military won't let ya tell what ya doing, where you are or discuss any wounds or injuries.
The company has gone back out to the bush, but I couldn't go because of my wound. It's healing slowly but surely; but, by the time my R&R comes, it should be as good as new.
When I come home, I should have a good collection of medals, as Mike Company won the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for Operation Taylor Common, plus my Purple Heart and the two Vietnamese medals everyone gets. And the National Defense ribbon. Not bad for a boot.
Well, got to go for now. I can't wait to call you from Hawaii. Oh, yea! The packages were great; send more!
I had called home from An Hoa via what was known as a MARS station. I think it was some sort of radio and short-wave type communications. I think I talked to my mother for about 5 minutes which 4 of those minutes seemed to be wasted in me trying to tell my mother she had to say "over" when she was done speaking so that the operator could throw a switch and allow me to speak. It didn't really matter. There wasn't much I could say other than I wished I was at home and that I loved my family. The phone call was being censored.
There was so much that had happened that it probably would have taken me hours to tell my mother what had gone on and that is assuming I could have found the words...
We were all back in An Hoa (Mike CO) after more than 100 days in the jungle, yet those of us who had been up on Hill 1081 were not reunited with our old squads because many of them had been killed between March 3rd and March 5th. To make things worse, the bodies of three dead Marines -- Sergeant Thompson, Christianson, and Merriweather -- had to be left behind in the mountains because of the enemy and wouldn't be recovered for months. Gone in my head was the idea planted at Parris Island that the Marines recovered all of their dead.
The story was told to me and Reed back in An Hoa by those from Mike CO who had survived. I remember one Marine, by the last name of Hull, who told me the story over and over at my asking. I couldn't hear the story enough. Couldn't get it out of my mind that I should have been there and yet, knew if I had, I would have been killed and even worse, maybe left behind.
On the first or second day of March, a platoon-size patrol had ventured up a hill known as Hill 315. Hull was on this patrol. There was a well-defined trail leading to the top of Hill 315. Alongside of the trail was heavy vegetation. Hull said Hill 315 was eerie.
The patrol didn't come upon the enemy on this day, but he said you could sense they were there. The patrol did find a burial ground with a small bamboo fence around it. The patrol dug up the graves and found dead NVA wrapped in white parachutes from our illumination flares that floated down to earth beneath the white silk.
The patrol went back down Hill 315 and returned to LZ Maxwell. On March 3rd, the entire Mike Company departed LZ Maxwell and headed for Hill 315, where they would set up and patrol the area. The company stopped short of the top of the hill, and a squad-size patrol was sent forward to recon the area. This squad was part of the platoon I had been assigned to.
While the rest of Mike Company waited for this squad to secure the top of the hill, AK fire broke out at the top of the hill. The squad had been ambushed. Cut down by the AK fire was the squad leader, Corporal Johnston, along with Merriweather and Christianson. Another Marine, whose name I can't recall, was hit in the head but only knocked unconscious because he had a helmet on. This Marine, left for dead, would awaken hours later and crawl back down the trail to safety, unnoticed by the enemy.
My old squad from Mike Company charged up the trail to try and save their fellow Marines but came up against fierce fire from the NVA, dug in deep in well-camouflaged bunkers.
Joseph Freeman, someone I looked up to in Vietnam, would go down next. He would be running from tree to tree, trying to get up to where Johnston and the others were down on the trail, when a bullet would pierce his neck. He would bleed to death in the arms of a Black Marine I remember by the name of Floyd.
For the next two days, Mike Company would try over and over again to retrieve their dead. It would become so futile that only volunteers would be asked to try and get up the trail. Hull told me the Marines were "cutting the deck" of playing cards to see who would go next. Somehow, Corporal Johnston's body was recovered. He had been riddled by small arms fire. Despite constant air strikes and supporting arms fire, the enemy didn't budge. Even tear gas was used but to no avail.
On March 5th, another attempt to get to the dead, now being Christianson and Merriweather, was made. Sergeant Thompson, the hero of Mike Company, moved forward, climbed over a fallen tree trunk, and was shot dead. He took an AK round into his chest and died. His body was in full view of the enemy, and it was impossible to get to him; and he, too, would be left. And so, despite what I had learned at Parris Island, Mike Company pulled back, left Hill 315, left behind three dead Marines.
And the many more from Mike Company who died in these few days trying to save their friends and the pride of the Marines.
Reed cried like a baby when he heard the names of the dead. I couldn't cry. Tears just didn't seem to come to me. I just stood in shock thinking about the dead and especially Sergeant Thompson who was a superman in my eyes. Thinking about him dead, and worse, still up in the mountains was just too shocking. With these Marines dead and gone, I felt so alone. I felt like the entire backbone of Mike Company was gone.
We had a company formation in which the Captain, Captain Burns, asked me how long I had been in Vietnam; and I said, "Five months, sir."
And he said something like, "Well, we're counting on you, Marine, to show us the way."
... Five months ... Such a short time ... What did I know about Vietnam?
13 Mar 69
Well, I received the $400 yesterday and have already cashed them here in An Hoa. I probably won't be going out to the field until after R&R, but I don't know where I'd be better off because An Hoa gets rocketed every night.
Let me tell you a little about the phone call. First of all, I called from what they call a MARS station and was in An Hoa at the time. It was about 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. I don't know what day it was, but let's say the 9th in RVN; then it was the 9th in Boston, too. But you were only one hour into the day, and we were 14 hours into the day. The time difference is 13 hours from Vietnam. I hope you know what I mean.
I received another Quincy Sun.
I'll be taking a lot of pictures on R&R, and I want you to develop them out of my money. Don't send them back, but start a photo album for me. I would like to see the roll of film you sent me, then I'll send them home.
Well, only 12 days before Hawaii. I'll call the first thing. Well, got to go for now. Please don't worry about my wound, OK?
Love ya all,
PS Tell the kids I'll send them something from Hawaii.
Yes, An Hoa was getting hit with 122 rockets during the day (sounded like freight trains coming in) and rockets and mortars at night. Being in the rear, I stood bunker watch every night along the perimeter around An Hoa.
I remember that while in An Hoa, it became policy that everyone had to have on his helmet and flak jacket whenever one was out of his bunker and that Marines were not to group together or stand in any sort of formation. I think even the mess hall was closed for a few days because of the fear that maybe the mess hall had been zeroed in by the NVA gunners. I remember a 122 rocket came in close to Mike Company's office. The rocket was a direct hit on a supply tent. The supplyman was killed instantly. In another incident, the battalion armory took a direct hit. The armorer was killed.
Yes, made me wonder if I wasn't better off out in the bush. At least the enemy didn't seem to waste the 122s on the grunts in the field.
My parents had asked me more about the phone call I had made. I guess that, on their end, the phone call had come so fast without warning and ended just as quickly that it seemed only to be a dream in the middle of the night; and worse, nothing had really been said. Again, most of the MARS call was used trying to explain to my mother that she had to keep saying "over" when she was done speaking.
My father kept up his lecturing in his letters about how I had to be careful with my money. Of course, I didn't listen to him.
I had cashed the checks, which had been intended for my R&R to Hawaii; but, before long, while still in An Hoa, I bought some beer. Then one day a Marine, who I didn't really know, asked me if I wanted to buy a .38cal pistol. It was a snub-nose like the pilots carried. It was brand new or appeared to be brand new. Despite having no reason and no real desire to own this pistol, I bought it from the Marine. Gone was nearly $120.
I owned the pistol for about a day. I never got to fire it. I'm not even sure I had bullets for it. Then reality started to set in. I began counting my money and realized I would be broke before I even left Vietnam for R&R, so I went looking for the Marine who had sold me the pistol and asked him if he would take the pistol back and give me back my money. He laughed at first but then agreed to give me some of my money back after I told him I needed the money for R&R. I think he gave me like $80 in return for the pistol. Eighty was better than nothing; but yet, my father was right. I had to watch my money.
(When I got to Da Nang on the day before I was to fly to Hawaii, I went to China Beach for a few hours. There, an American civilian befriended me. It turned out he was a salesman selling Bibles. He sucked me into buying one for $50. He said my parents would really love receiving a Bible from me. They still have the Bible today in their home. I don't know what it represents to them; but, whenever I see it, I hear my father's voice, through the letters he wrote me, telling me to watch out for my money.)
As for my wound... It was healing somewhat and would heal completely in the warm sun and salt waters of Hawaii. Today, I wear the scar well.
27 Mar 69
Western Union TeleGram
69 MAR 27 PR HWAO34 INTL FR HONOLULU 21 27 247A HST VIARCA=
MRS SHIRLEY OCONNELL=
353 FRANKLIN ST QUINCY MASS=
RUNNING LOW WIRE 150 DOLLARS C/O ALOHA SURF HOTEL 444 KANEKAPOLIE ST=
This was the next correspondence my parents received from me. It was a call for help. I was broke. Flat broke in Hawaii.
R&R in Hawaii was a story in its own. First off, the flight stopped in Guam for fuel. I remember while in Guam (maybe for an hour or so), the window shades in the plane had to be down because we were not suppose to see the B-52s. I guess it was all right to see their destruction first hand but not the planes themselves.
Also, while in Guam, we were off-loaded onto busses and taken to a terminal where there was a liquor store. I bought five 5ths of hard stuff. I remember buying a couple of bottles of Black & White Scotch despite knowing I hated the taste of scotch and most hard liquors. I was buying the liquor to bring back to the guys in Mike Company.
So, with the liquor went some of my money. And then there had been the money I had lost on the pistol back in An Hoa and the Bible at China Beach.
When I arrived in Hawaii, I had to get a hotel room. I stayed at the Aloha Surf Hotel. I could have stayed at a military R&R center for almost dirt cheap, but I didn't want anything to do with the military; so there went more money.
Then I got sucked into renting a car. I was walking by a car rental place, and a guy asked me if I wanted to rent a car. I told him I didn't have a driver's license. He asked me if I didn't have one in my wallet or was it that I had never learned to drive and had never had one. I explained to him that my driver's license had fallen apart in Vietnam. I told him how everything got wet over there and would literally disintegrate.
He told me he could rent me a car if I wanted one and that if I got stopped to explain to the police just like I had to him about my license and Vietnam. So I rented a TR4 -- a convertible that was a bitch to get the roof back up when it was down, especially during one of those "passing showers." I got wet every day but loved driving around with the top down. With the car went more money.
Then I drank some beers at the International Market Place. I was still only 18, and the drinking age was 20; but my 1st Sergeant back in Vietnam had given me a new military ID with a phony birth date on it that made me 20. He told me when I returned back from Hawaii, he wanted the ID back.
(When I returned, I gave it to him. If it wasn't for the 1st Sergeant, I don't know what I would have done for booze in Hawaii other than the hard stuff I had bought in Guam, which was now in my hotel room sitting out on the bureau.)
With the beers went more money. Then, the first night I was in Hawaii, I went to a night club called the Merry Monarch. In fact, I would go there every night I was in Hawaii, except for one night when I got hooked up with some hippies and smoked pot.
The Merry Monarch had live music and dancing. It also had a cover charge, and the drinks were expensive; but the nightclub was as close to home as I had been in almost 6 months. Also, there were girls at the Merry Monarch, girls that wanted to dance; and so, I bought drinks for girls and danced. After, I would tell them I was on R&R from Vietnam, and they would say I was too young looking to be in Vietnam. I would forget all about the war and get lost in the music, in the dancing, in the perfume scented girls, in the drunken stupor I would end up in.
The first morning after arriving in Hawaii and after being out on the town, I remember counting my money and wondering where most of it went. I was going broke even after only one night in Hawaii.
On the second night in Hawaii at the Merry Monarch, I met three girls who danced with me for some time and drank with me (at my expense) and then asked me if I was interested in going back to my room with one of them. I most certainly was. I was lonely. I had been nearly the only guy who had come to Hawaii on the R&R flight who didn't have someone meeting them when they arrived in Hawaii. Most of those who had come to Hawaii were either married or met their girlfriend.
So, after I said I was interested in going to my room with one of them, they then told me they were prostitutes and that going back to my room would cost me... There went more money. When I woke in the morning with a big head and almost no memory of the night before, I found my wallet empty. The only money I had was in my trouser pockets. Just enough money to wire home for more money. (I'm afraid my parents' money now.)
And so, my family got this telegram asking for more money; and my mother wired it and also wired a message that said, "Call home immediately."
I didn't call them.
(Yes, I did call when I first arrived in Hawaii but not after receiving this resupply of money. Called Sharon, too, but all we did was fight over who owed who a letter and why she was dating some guys while I was in the jungle. I got mad and told her I was with all sorts of girls in Hawaii... and to think I had been staying alive for that phone call.)
My head was scrambled. My father had said to watch out for my money, and I had thought he was just being a pain; but I should have listened.
I could function in Vietnam, function in the jungle; but I couldn't function back in the world. I was still only eighteen, regardless of how old I felt or how old I thought I was. Eighteen and without a clue.
Do you know that, when I received the $150 dollars, I cashed the check and went to the Merry Monarch and sat with the three prostitutes again and ended back in my room with one of them (a different one this time) and hung over and alone again in the morning with little money left.
And somewhere in this Hawaii ordeal, I met some hippies at the International Market Place and bought pot from them and got my head all screwed up one night. I didn't realize that, despite the fact I didn't think Vietnam was on my mind, I was having all sorts of flashbacks while I was in Hawaii. High on pot, I got paranoid and started thinking people were looking at me, like they had their sights on me.
I was lucky to have survived Hawaii. I didn't get back to Vietnam feeling rested at all. I returned exhausted and broke. In fact, I had never felt so good when I got back to An Hoa and Mike Company -- the world I seemed to understand better than any other.
(The five 5ths of liquor didn't make it back to Vietnam. I sold them in Hawaii to the prostitutes... I returned the rental car late and so had to pay extra... I didn't have enough money to pay for the hotel when I checked out. They billed me. I was suppose to pay them over several months. Sent them money the first month from Vietnam; but, when they were looking for more money, a friend of mine in Vietnam wrote them a letter stating I had been killed in Vietnam and that he was sorry about the money.)
8 Apr 69
Sorry I haven't written since I got back from R&R, but I haven't had a chance. I haven't had a chance to send home the gifts, either; so they are in my sea bag right now. I got my Purple Heart today and that is also in my sea bag.
When I got back, they made me a fire-team leader, which puts me in charge of three other guys; but they've only been here one month, which makes them a risk to my life, as they don't know too much. But, after a few fire fights, and I beat on their heads a little, they'll straighten up. That's the only way to break in new boots. You could say I'm getting hard.
Enclosed is a few more pictures. Hope you enjoy them. Well, got to go. Oh! Yea, I had the car in Boston. Pay the ticket out of my money. Sorry.
There were no gifts. Like I said before, I came back to Vietnam broke. I just didn't know how to tell my family that Hawaii had been a disaster. I was still a kid and didn't realize it. Vietnam was making me grow in one sense (old); and, in another sense, I was still only eighteen and very immature.
About being in Boston... When I had been home on leave before going to Vietnam, I had taken my father's car to Boston and had gotten a parking ticket. I remember seeing the ticket tucked under the windshield wiper. I remember removing the ticket, reading it, then tearing it up into many little pieces; and, as I threw them into the wind, I remember saying to my friends who were with me, "What are they going to do if I don't pay? Shave my head and send me to Vietnam?"
We all chuckled back then. It took the City of Boston some time to catch up to me, but they did; and I felt shame because my father had to put up with my mistakes. (Same thing I felt because I was in Vietnam. My father was going through a lot because of it.)
Letters home now would become few and far between. I would feel more distant from my family and the rest of the world. I think that the trip to Hawaii showed me something or made me think something like, "I'll never really fit in the world now."
Vietnam would change. Gone were those I looked up to. I would become the one others would look to for guidance.
I was medevaced back to An Hoa on my first day back into the bush. I suffered from heat exhaustion. I was just too out of shape. Hadn't been in the bush in almost a month; plus, I was carrying too much weight, which included a cassette tape player I had bought in Hawaii, along with a Doors' tape and the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour."
24 Apr 69
Well, sorry I haven't written; but we've been busy working around the An Hoa area. It seems the gooks have flooded the area with booby traps, but I've been lucky enough not to hit one. We had 2 KIA and 6 WIA on two booby traps.
Right now, I'm a squad leader; so I have two fire teams, plus a machine-gun team, under me. This isn't a bad job, as I only have to carry my personal gear, plus maps and compass. Plus, I don't stand watch at night. But then, again, I'm responsible for these men's lives and what they do.
This job will only last up until the 30th; then I'm getting transferred to a CAP unit (stands for Combined Action Platoon). It's 100% better than what I've been doing, as you live in a compound with thick bunkers around you. I'll go to school in Da Nang to learn some Vietnamese language. This will last from 2 to 3 weeks; then I get my assignment. I don't know what my address will be, but I'll try and send it by radiogram. So, stop writing Mike Company as of this letter.
Well, I really dug them pictures of Cheryl and Mama. Send me a whole roll of film of the whole family, plus the house and stuff. OK?
I still haven't had a chance to send the stuff from Hawaii, but I'll do it as soon as possible.
Well, got to go and will probably get to write more often in Da Nang.
Love ya all,
Two Marines from my platoon were killed around this time. I don't remember their names, despite the fact I've been stuck for years thinking they were Murphy and Smith; but there are no names in the Book of the Dead that match up to theirs.
But, anyway, one morning, these two Marines jumped down from a truck and began to move into position to provide road security. They made the mistake of going to the same exact place they had spent the day before; and when they got there -- "Boom!" -- a booby trap exploded. They were blown to what I call smithereens.
Myself and several other Marines were sent in to retrieve the remains of the two dead Marines. We placed body parts upon a rubber poncho and began to carry out the mess when I stopped for some unknown reason and looked down and saw at my feet a tripwire. I yelled out to everyone, "Don't move! We are surrounded by booby traps."
I then noticed that I had stepped over the tripwire. I could see my boot prints in the dusty red clay. Somehow, slowly, we backed our way out of this booby-trapped area and got back on the road. I remember spending the rest of the day sitting on a huge boulder, while I stared out into space. I then knew there was some sort of God and that he was watching out for me. I became spiritual on this day, so spiritual that no religion has ever found its way into my heart or soul.
Squad Leader... all you had to do to get promoted was to stay alive. Staying alive wasn't easy, and staying alive wasn't all skill. There was an awful lot of luck and the Grace of God.
One of our WIA was a Marine in his first day out in the bush. He was assigned to my squad. Actually, I knew him only long enough to shake his hand, to welcome him to Vietnam. I remember telling him that I would write his name in my little black book where I kept the names of guys in my squad, along with their service number and rifle number, when we stopped to rest; but I never got to do this because, in about the second or third step this new guy took, he tripped a booby trap and blew his arm right off.
As for CAP... I wanted to get assigned to a CAP unit for the reasons I stated in the letter, but it never came to be. My company commander told me he needed some experience in the company, and so I was stuck. Telling my parents I was going to be transferred did nothing but screw up my mail, as they stopped sending mail to me at Mike Company.
It is unbelievable that anyone survived Vietnam in these booby-trapped areas...
9 May 69
Sorry you haven't heard from me in such a long time, but things have been hell. I don't mean to make you worry. You must bear with me.
Well, I heard about Tommy's little accident. He'll never learn.
I'm still waiting for my transfer, and the last word I got was that it should be in soon.
Well, I've got some interesting news for you. Three days ago, I won the Bronze Star, which is two away from the Medal of Honor. Well, let me tell you about it. Well, at 3:30 a.m. on the 5th, Mike Company and Bravo 1/5 moved into the Phu Duc area of An Hoa and surrounded a company of the 5th Viet Cong Regt. At about 6:00 a.m., we moved out; and I was about 20 yards from a bunker when a VC started running until I put an automatic burst up his back and head.
Here is where I won it. I saw another one run for a stream, so I chased him but couldn't find him until he came up for air right at my feet; so I kind of did him, too. Then me and another guy got in the water and captured 4 VC and one VC nurse. So there you have it.
Well, got to go for now but you might as well keep writing until my transfer comes in.
Despite the fact I was still getting letters on a daily basis from my father and mother, my letter writing was growing slimmer and slimmer each day. The war around me was taking its toll; and Hawaii, which should have provided some sort of rest, hadn't. And, on top of this, I had received more news that my brother Tommy had gotten into more trouble at home.
All the fighting in Vietnam around me would have been enough to try and handle, but there was more than just the war in Asia; there were the problems at home back in the world that my father kept me up on, problems out of my hands but not out of my mind...
May 5, 1969, was probably the closest thing to what I thought Vietnam should be like and what it should have been to be a fighting Marine. Mike Company did, in fact, surround a village in the wee hours of the morning. It was a perfect maneuver that caught the VC by surprise.
I remember that, just as the sky began to lighten, a small plane came overhead and circled the village. Attached to the underside of the plane was a loud speaker, and coming from the loud speaker was a lot of Vietnamese language. The VC were being told that they were surrounded and should surrender. This brought on a lot of movement in the village, and the VC started to make a run for it across an open rice paddy; but, unfortunately for them, they were running right at us Marines, who were hiding behind rice-paddy dikes.
The entire Mike Company opened fire. The VC in black pajamas stopped in their tracks and tried to turn and run back to the village but were cut down by the fire. We then were told to get up and assault towards the village. As we began our move, a VC jumped up to my front and began to run away. Myself and another Marine in my sqaud fired at him at the same time, and he just dropped right down out of sight.
I remember moving up towards him, coming up to his body which was motionless. Remember waiting for him to spring to life. I remember firing more rounds into his back to make sure he didn't get a chance to surprise me. We found out later in the day that this dead VC had been an officer and was actually a Pay Master for the area VC.
As for the VC in the water... Later on in the day, while my squad was taking a break from the action, we saw movement towards our front. It looked like Vietnamese running through some high grass. We saddled up and ran after them, ran to where we saw them disappear. When we came to that point, we were standing at the edge of a small pond. Right at my feet, at the edge of the pond where I was looking down, I could not believe my eyes. I was looking down at the top of someone's head, black hair, submerged beneath the surface of the pond.
I fired 18 rounds of automatic M-16 at the head. The head flew up, straight out of the water; and there were arms straight up in the air over it, and the VC was yelling and screaming in Vietnamese.
I was stunned, shocked, for I had completely missed shooting this VC. I still think today about what you see beneath the surface of the water is really different because of the light being deflected by the water. And I wonder even today if the M-16 rounds deflected as they hit the water.
Anyway, this VC, who we dragged from the water along with 3 other VC, were captured. And, I was put in for the Bronze Star but never was awarded it. My Lieutenant, after I asked him about the Bronze Star some months later, told me that whoever reviewed the recommendations probably didn't feel that my capturing the 4 VC warranted the Bronze Star. I didn't think I was bothered by this back then, but I was; and, as I began to turn disenchanted with the war, the Bronze Star stuff probably added to my depressed feelings about the war...
21 May 69
Well it's me again. I'm sitting on top of Hill 198 waiting for the gooks to rocket An Hoa. I'm in charge of 9 people, and we are suppose to keep our eyes open for rocket flashes. Then I get on the radio and call in artillery on the position.
Right now I'm the most experienced man in the 1st platoon as all my buddies have jobs in the rear. They will be going home soon.
Oh!!! It's not PFC anymore. I'm now Lance Corporal O'Connell. Pretty good! I made it the other day. I'm enclosing the certificate plus my Purple Heart certificate. They are pretty dirty, but who cares. The Bronze Star ceremony should be before I come home. These things take time.
Well, I've been receiving all the mail you've been sending. It takes a little longer, but I still get it.
I might as well tell you that me and Sharon are through. The impression she gives me is that she's too busy with some other guy so she can't write too much. So I wrote her and told her where to go. At least I can say I didn't receive a Dear John. I don't care anyway because, do you remember the girl I met on R&R who worked for TWA? Well, I got a package from her a few days ago. I write her when I can. When I come home on leave, I'm going to visit her; and I want to bring her home so you people can meet her. She's out of this world.
Well, can't think of much more to say. I'll write when I can.
Hill 198 was about two miles southwest of An Hoa. The Son Tinh Yen River looped around Hill 198 and then flowed south. From Hill 198, we had a panoramic view of the An Hoa basin to the east and northeast, and to the west, the mountains that went all the way to Laos.
There was always at least a squad of Marines on top of Hill 198 watching for signs of the enemy. I remember on the day I wrote this letter, An Hoa took 122mm rocket fire. We heard the booms as the rockets were fired from the mountains west of An Hoa; but, because of the delay in the speed of sound, by the time we heard the booms and looked towards the mountains, the muzzle flashes were gone, and the rounds were impacting into An Hoa.
We could see the dust clouds rising from An Hoa. I can't recall if anyone was killed that day because of the rocket attack; but I know when I was asked over the radio whether we saw any muzzle flashes or smoke come from the mountains, all I could report was that we heard the rockets fired and that the sound came from somewhere in the mountains.
Over the radio, they kept asking us for grid coordinates. I had no idea where the rockets were fired from; but, to satisfy someone on the other end of the radio, I gave them some grids, and our artillery opened fire on that spot. Must have made someone happy, thinking we were shooting back at the enemy, when I knew, all we were doing was killing some trees deep in the mountainous jungle.
I was in Vietnam only 7 months and was the most experienced man in my platoon. This was frightening. I still hadn't gotten over the loss of those on Hill 315. And then there were other Marines I had come to know, who had been in Vietnam longer than me; but they got jobs in the rear, in An Hoa, such as in company supply, mess duty, burning shitters, and some, just filling sandbags for bunkers. I would have taken any job there was in the rear.
Yes, I got promoted and still thought I was going to get the Bronze Star but never would. I felt so foolish when I arrived home and my father asked me what happened to the Bronze Star. I remember feeling like he thought I had made up the whole thing about being put in for the Bronze Star. I actually felt shame over it. I just wished I had never been told I was being put in for the Bronze Star.
And sometimes I wish the Marine Corps could find a way to give me the award today, despite being a grown man and knowing the Bronze Star isn't the most important thing in the world.
As for my girlfriend, Sharon. Despite the attitude in the letter, I was devastated. My heart was broken; and with all the crap going on around me in Vietnam, I really didn't need the grief of hearing I no longer had a girlfriend waiting for me at home.
As for the girl I met on R&R. All a fantasy. All a battle dressing to cover the open wound Sharon had delivered to me. Yes, I had met a girl one night in Hawaii, had danced with her, and had even given her a ride back to her hotel; but that was it. I never saw her again, except in my mind.